Some 32 migrants who were held for weeks at sea on tourism boats chartered by the Maltese government during the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic have filed a constitutional complaint in a Maltese court claiming their human rights were violated.
The case, which had its first procedural hearing Thursday, was filed on behalf of the migrants by lawyers and humanitarian organizations including the Jesuit Refugee Service and Aditus Foundation against the Maltese prime minister, home affairs minister and state advocate.
The migrants are seeking compensation for what the complaint says was inhuman and degrading treatment and violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. The next hearing is expected in January.
The government, in its response to the complaint, denied the migrants’ rights were violated and insisted they were kept on the ships as a COVID-19 containment measure at a time when the government had declared a public health emergency and Maltese ports, and ports of other countries, were closed.
The migrants had left Libya on separate boats and different days starting in late April, 2020. They were finally allowed to disembark in early June, some after more than a month at sea, after some migrants threatened the crew on one of the boats.
Like most would-be asylum seekers who leave Libya on unseaworthy smugglers’ boats, the migrants had asked to be rescued at sea a few days into their journeys and were picked up by nearby ships and taken toward Malta. But in a change, they were transferred to government-chartered tourism boats that are usually used for touring around the island nation or chartered for private boat parties.
The complaint says the Maltese government coordinated the operation and maintained direct control over the boats and crews while the vessels remained in international waters off Malta.
The government at the time had insisted Malta was abiding by its international obligations to coordinate rescues but wasn’t in a position to accommodate any migrants and was negotiating with other EU states to relocate them.
According to the complaint, upwards of 400 migrants were effectively imprisoned at sea without knowing why, with little or no ability to contact families and deprived of legal advice or the ability to apply for asylum.
Conditions were grave and sanitary facilities insufficient, since the vessels were never intended for long-term accommodation. Passengers were only given sleeping bags after they complained, the complaint said.
“They didn’t know where they were, what was going to happen to them and for how many days, weeks or months they would remain at sea,” the complaint said.
The government denied the migrants were ever under any form of arrest, insisted that their dignity and fundamental rights had been respected and said the measures to provide temporary accommodation were legitimate and justified given the pandemic.
“One must not forget that this case dates back to the first months of the spread of COVID-19, while Malta was going through a public health emergency (…) Malta, as other countries had done at the time, had closed its ports and stopped travel,” the government said.
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